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Discover the Rewards of Owning A CNC Router

See the options available with CNC routers. Sign makers can get into the commercial signage business, for example, or channel letter fabrication. It gives them a broad capability to enter multiple markets.

By Jennifer LeClaire

Take a look at your options in the CNC router market and decide if the potential rewards are worth the financial investment. Is using computer technology to automate control cutting, drilling and fabricating sign parts worth the investment? Which table should I get? What software should I use? CNC routers bring a laundry list of advantages to a growing sign shop. Productivity is always a concern in a small business and the ability to add new services, like 3-D engraving, is a potential revenue generator. Greater quality and scaling capabilities, of course, are critical. Add all these factors together and the result could equal greater profitability for your shop.

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  • Focusing on productivity
    "If you need to make several of the same item, CNC routers are a huge advantage," says Marc Bourque, president of Larken CNC Router Systems, a CNC router manufacturer in Ontario, Canada. "You can also save job files for repeat jobs."

    CNC routers save labor costs, adds Tom Propes, sales manager for Computerized Cutters, Inc., a CNC router and CNC channel letter fabrication manufacturer in Plano, Texas. "It can save you time. Time is money," he says. "I can cut out a whole set of letters with a router in the time that it takes to cut out one by hand. You can make money but you can't make time."

    Expanding your services
    Beyond productivity, adding new services to your offering could attract new clients and a new revenue stream for your company.

    Gerber senior product manager Scott Anthony says sign makers can test their local market by first outsourcing dimensional signage to a larger company.

    "When you start to outsource about $700 or $800 a month then you want to think about bringing routing in-house so that you can control the product, the quality, and the profits," says Anthony. "Dimensional signage is a strong niche that supplements existing business with higher profit potential."

    "Taking control of in-house routing gives sign makers the capability to do both interior and exterior signage," says Ken Koelling, president of MultiCam, a CNC router manufacturer in Irving, Texas. "Sign makers can get into the commercial signage business, for example, or channel letter fabrication. It gives them a pretty broad capability to enter multiple markets."

    Sign making customers of Techno-isel, a New Hyde Park, NY-based division of Designatronics, tell company executive vice president George Klein that there are many functions they can perform with the CNC router that they hadn't initially considered. "The less obvious functions are secondary things like making frames and other things associated with the signs, including bracketry, fixtures, even things like furniture pieces and shelving applications," says Klein. "So a router is not only a boost to business it's an expansion of the business' capabilities."

    Aiming for higher quality
    With clients old and new, quality and consistency are critical to gaining repeat business and building your company's reputation. From this perspective, says Bourque, CNC routers are the way to go. The output is high quality because you design it by hand and then depend on computer technology to cut perfect true curves.

    Then there's the ability to adjust the scaling at the touch of a button. "You can draw something up and decide that you want it to be bigger and in a minute you've got it bigger and ready to cut again," says Bourque.

    Automating for profitability
    While quality is key, no shop owner can resist cost-cutting strategies. Using a CNC router to automate the cutting process accomplishes this goal while maintaining that ever-so-important quality and consistency.

    "A lot of times they are already producing components that can be produced on a router and in reality the total cost of ownership becomes less and the parts have higher quality and cost less to produce," says Koelling.

    Now we are back to the bottom line: greater profitability. It's all in the numbers. Depending on the substrate, says Propes, a carved sign could run up to $150 a square foot. But the material is not nearly that expensive.

    "You are looking at a vinyl sign that's maybe $15 a foot versus a routed sign that's $150 a foot," he says. "True, every customer is not going to choose or be able to afford the routed sign, however, if you don't offer it you'll never sell it."

    Choosing a router that fits your needs
    Just like there are different classes of cars, there are different classes of routers. But regardless of the level you choose, you should look for certain features in any machine.

    Start with ease of use. User-friendliness of both the software and the hardware is a key consideration.

    Sticking with the industry standard
    Gerber's routers are designed exclusively for the sign making industry. Its best-selling models are the Sabre Series 404 and 408. The 404 model is a 4' x 4' machine with a feed rate of 600 inches per minute. The 408 model has the same capabilities with a 4' x 8' table.

    Gerber's Anthony says custom engineering and specialized tools differentiate the Sabre line from other routers on the market. Priced at about $35,000 to $42,000, the Sabre models are built with aluminum instead of steel to make a router that is lighter and more rigid.

    "We are in an industry that uses and abuses equipment and they don't spend any time taking care of their capital equipment," says Anthony. "We use different drives that require less maintenance and offer software, service and support systems for customers."

    "If you are a first time router buyer, having application assistance is important," says Koelling. "Application assistance, not only in terms of learning the software most sign making firms are pretty savvy when it comes to graphic design and so the software isn't usually that difficult but the applications and knowledge of specific cutting techniques is real important."

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    Avoiding downtime is a major factor, says Bourque. Koelling agrees, and stresses the importance of choosing a vendor that can provide service to its hardware.

    "Choose a size that's going to fit in your space and that's going to be suitable for the type of work that you are doing or want to do, and then selecting a supplier of that machine that's going to be able to give them local service," says Koelling. "That's something a lot of people forget."

    Customers should concentrate on quality. "You have to educate yourself as to what is on the market," says Klein. "You've got to be careful now because there's an awful lot of companies pretending to make routers. Let the buyer beware."

    Getting a glimpse of the market
    There are lots of CNC routers out there. Let's look at a select few that represent different ranges in the market. MultiCam is one of the leading manufacturers of CNC routers, installing more than 3,000 machines worldwide. MultiCam has 12 Technology Centers throughout the U.S. to provide local support, repair service, sales and application training. MultiCam routers offer a rigid, all steel construction and a robust platform for high-speed, Ethernet-based cutting.

    Their "M series" is specifically designed for the needs of the sign industry. The entry-level system features the adaptation of I-cut vision systems so the machine can be easily integrated into digital printing on rigid substrates. The prices range from $30,000-$60,000 depending on the dimensions of the table.

    Koelling points to the design's user-friendliness as a key attraction for sign makers, an important consideration when training employees. "We've condensed the user interface to very basic functions, so it's not intimidating to learn," says Koelling. "That's really why they are so prolific. It's more difficult than a vinyl cutter because of the technique, but the functionality of the machine is not much more difficult."

    Examining all the options
    Larken's CNC routers are mid-level machines. The product geared toward the sign industry is called ShopCam and the model has been redesigned for 2002. The latest ShopCam is a turnkey 3-axis system that offers features typically found only on more expensive models. The system is based on a steel frame and gantry, welded for maximum rigidity and machined for accuracy. One new improvement is the installation of quality round Star rails and Star ball-bearing bushings for precision and longer life.

    "We went back to proven technology," says Bourque. "We had the basic screw before. Basically, it's go all the way with the screw or don't go at all because you need to have a big, heavy duty ball screw or it's not going to work for you. If you go with the big screws you are talking about much more expensive machines."

    Larken's CNC routers sell for as little as $18,000 for a 4X5 table and run up to $30,000 for a 5X10 model. Larken's reputation for manufacturing tables that are built to last has made the ShopCam a favorite among sign makers.

    Assessing price versus features
    Next up is Computerized Cutters' Accu-Cut. Propes says this machine fills the gap between the $6,000 and $30,000 table. Computerized Cutters sells its machines direct to the consumer in sizes ranging from 4X4 to 10X25. "We don't offer a lot of the whistles and bells that some of the other companies offer. However, a lot of those whistles and bells are never purchased anyway," says Propes. "An automatic tool changer is a good example. You can have several different bits for a job and the machine would automatically grab the bit and do that particular function. Typically, those sell for $25,000. I don't know of a sign shop that I've ever visited in 10 years that has an automatic tool changer. We don't feel it's necessary."

    Computerized Cutters' machine runs at $20,000 plus shipping. The company keeps its costs down by eliminating the controller card that takes information from the computer to the machine. The company instead took a software product designed for the engraving industry, developed it further, and uses a desktop computer to run the table. "Suppose I want to upgrade my operating system," says Propes. "I can download it over the Internet. I don't have to go out and buy a $3,000 control card. You can buy a nice Dell computer for $800-$900. It's very easy to use, too, instead of having an LCD screen with a lot of sub-menus, you have a 17" computer screen."

    Getting the biggest bang for your buck
    Assessing price versus features helps ensure you get the biggest bang for your buck. Techno-isel is trying to further that goal with the introduction of two new CNC router models designed to address the needs of sign industry market that is demanding the ability to perform more high-end applications. Techno-isel's LC (low cost) line of 4X8 routers sell for $14,000. Klein says the LC model is built to the same standards as the high-end Premium Class router system, with all steel construction. Pricing for the super heavyweight Premium Class machine starts at $35,000 and offers all the bells and whistles growing sign shops could hope for, with ball screw drives on all three axis' to provide a high degree of accuracy, repeatability and longevity. "The heavier the machine is," says Klein, "the more stable it is in terms of its rigidity and its capability of taking heavy cuts without flexing or bending."

    Making the final decision
    Armed with the basic facts, you can make a final decision about CNC routers for your shop. Keep in mind that there are plenty of other companies with similar products at similar prices. And if it's that initial investment that is keeping you from taking the plunge, remember that most companies do have leasing programs to help you get one of these machines in your shop. Monthly payments on CNC routers average about $400 the price of one or two sales.

    The advantages are clear. The equipment is available. Whether its worth the risk is up to you.

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